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Canadian Provinces Expressing Concern From U.S. Demands To Divert Millions of Gallons of Fresh Water From Great Lakes

Historically, the Great Lakes region considered itself immune to water availability and supply problems. Over the last century, several plans to divert water from the fresh water system to North American cities has been met with great criticism. Water wars will likely replace oil wars in the future, and current requests to draw water from the Great Lakes system would be a precedent-setting move with obvious consequences if the plan was approved by Canadian and U.S. governments.

A series of large-scale diversions, proposed between 1959 and 1982, would have transported Great Lakes water to more arid regions of North America to support their growing populations and continued economic development. These proposals were far reaching which would have resulted in negative environmental impacts that would have exceeded any economic benefits to these regions. It seems these lessons in history are being ignored by those wishing to implement similar diversions.

Recently, a city of about 70,000 named Waukesha, has asked the Great Lake states for permission to divert water from Lake Michigan because its own aquifer is running low and the water is contaminated with high levels of naturally occurring cancer-causing radium.

Global fresh water scarcity is now becoming a major problem for the world and spurring many inventions to make salt water drinkable.

Under a current regional agreement between eight U.S. states and Ontario and Quebec, diversions of water away from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin are banned, with limited exceptions that can be made only when certain conditions are met.

Waukesha -- in seeking to become the first such exception to the ban -- argues that although it's located outside the boundary of the Great Lakes basin, it is part of a county straddling that geographical line and should be allowed access to the lakes' water.

It also promises to return treated water to Lake Michigan. Similar promises were made in the past.

Many environmentalists argue that all water withdrawals--consumptive uses and diversions--should be judged by the same rules and that the agreements should put a greater emphasis on water conservation.

The response in Canada, however, was much more critical--even shrill in its condemnation of the requests. Ironically, on the U.S. side of the border, it was industrial and agricultural interests that emerged as the chief critics of the documents, while in Canada much of the opposition came from environmentalists and even Canadian nationalists.

Ontario's Objections

Many provinces, but specifically the Province of Ontario has taken issue with the plan in a technical review of the diversion application put forward by Waukesha and the Wisconsin department of natural resources.

"The Government of Ontario has identified a number of concerns relating to Wisconsin DNR's explanation of how Waukesha satisfies the 'straddling county' exception," wrote Jason Travers, director of the natural resources conservation policy branch at Ontario's ministry of natural resources.

The province also found that the potential impacts of the proposed diversion on Great Lakes water quantity had not been sufficiently assessed.

"Based on Ontario's analysis of the proposal, additional information regarding wastewater return flow and water quality discharge standards is required to evaluate aspects of the proposal," Travers said.

Heightened awareness of the vulnerability of the Great Lakes is ever present in the minds of the region's leaders and citizens. The region is experiencing increased pollution in the lakes that had caused many to believe that the Great Lakes need a replenishment of nutrients, not a diversion of water.

Millions of Gallons Per Day To Be Diverted

Many diversion plans call for more than 1 million gallons per day (mgd).
The Waukesha plan if approved will draw more than 10 million gallons of lake water each day.

Environmental experts have stated that a diversion proposal would only be approved if the following conditions were met: (1) there was no other water alternative; (2) the quantity requested was "reasonable"; (3) water withdrawn would be returned, minus an "allowance" for consumptive use; (4) the diversion caused no significant individual or cumulative adverse impacts; (5) an "environmentally sound and economically feasible" conservation plan was adopted; (6) in ex-change for the water, the applicant agreed to do an "improvement" to the Great Lakes ecosystem; and (7) that the diversion proposal didn't violate any other laws or agreements.

The impact of climate change will also change the economics of water. This will have an accelerated effect upon Great Lakes tributaries and groundwater from which water is diverted because their shallower depth makes them more sensitive to changes in levels and flows. It is projected that tributaries will feel the impact of higher temperatures before lakes and thus suffer from decreased flow and levels. This will impact how much water can be consumed from these tributaries both within and outside the Basin.

Waukesha's proposal has raised worries among American and Canadian communities around the Great Lakes, with a number of opponents warning that the diversion could set a dangerous precedent for other communities facing water shortages.

"The Government of Ontario is concerned with the potential precedent that would be set if the proposal were to be approved without adequate demonstration that all communities in the defined service area have met each criterion of the standard," Travers wrote.

Ontario's review also acknowledged that Waukesha's proposal was likely just the beginning of similar future requests.

"The issue of increasing radium concentrations in public groundwater water supplies is occurring up and down eastern Wisconsin and is therefore not restricted to just Waukesha," it said. "The Waukesha water diversion proposal is only one part of a bigger water demand scenario that the province of Ontario should be prepared to address in the future."

Ontario has weighed in on Waukesha's proposal because it, along with Quebec, is part of the regional agreement known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, which was signed to protect waters in the basin.

While its review will be considered by its fellow Great Lakes states at a meeting in mid April, Ontario and Quebec will not, however, be part of a final vote by eight state governors on Waukesha's proposal that will determine the issue.

The Great Lakes support 33 million people, including nine million Canadians and eight of Canada's 20 largest cities, according to the federal government.

While the Great Lakes are certainly depended upon as a water supply, they are also fundamentally important to Canada-US trade, agriculture, industry, power generation and recreation. Their vitality and abundance contributes hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy each year.

Waukesha is just one thirsty city beyond the Great Lakes basin, but it begs the question: who will be next in this era of changing climate patterns and where do we draw the line?


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